Saturday, 12 November 2011

Skyrim [PS3]

It's huge, open and immersive - until you want to go wild and then you'll be glitched back into line.


You can always get what you want
Doing pretty much whatever you choose in this epic, sprawling fantasy environment is great.  

  • "Today, I will mine some gold and make a nice shiny bracelet, then wear it to chat up butch guys". 
  • "I'm going to buy a house, get married and wear fancy pantaloons".
  • "Perhaps now I will run to the other side of the world to see what's there".
  • "I think now I'll go and stab some dogs". 
These options are all available to you and many more - the game and story is just about non-linear enough to allow you to feel like you are finding your own adventures in this massive, massive world. 


And when I say "massive", I don't mean "fairly big", I mean "takes you half an hour to walk from city to city and bloody ages to get to the top of the highest mountains big" - as you would hope. The landscape is not only epic but also nicely varied: there are large mountainous regions, forests, valleys, barren vistas, towering cities and tiny villages. The environments feel very organic - it's not just a straight road between towns but at points it's a dirt path winding alongside a river, just as a real pathway would be.

The designers have clearly taken the time to make each environment feel natural and each settlement to have a "living" feel to them - with houses, shops and inhabitants all interacting in a noticably natural way. This doesn't quite work out when scrutinised closely - with some towns having more shops that residential buildings - but we'll just assume there's a regular and rich transient community who come to town a lot to do their shopping.





Live out your destiny, Dragonborn
If you actually play through the story quest and start building up your skills, the game can grab you for days at a time and not let you go. 


The story involves most of the major factions that you engage with throughout the game, and seeing each one rise up heroically, or die tragically actually carries some weight. Making your affiliations and fighting on one side of an epic conflict or another can be rewarding and remarkable fun. "Aha Ulrick von-Prick! I betrayed you at the last minute! And I'll also betray the guys we were fighting - being a double-triple-uber secret agent!".


Getting the higher-level skills to unleash mid-battle is also fun and rewarding. The spells you can cast are not only visually-spectacular but also satisfyingly tactical - using "runes" (basically magical mines), destructive spells, corruptive spells and healing spells at the right times for maximum effect takes a little while to get used to but later on is smooth and flows blissfully.


The final stages of the story are suitably epic and there are loads of challenging battles in the last couple of quests which serve to bring together everything you've done thus far. 

The only problem is that the conclusion of the main quest feels quite hollow, with very limited reference to your actions throughout the game. I have yet to play through the main story a second time, but I find it hard to see how the end would play out any other way - the only difference being the key characters are still alive and ready to follow you into battle. 


Perhaps if the relevant factions had some sort of bonus or perk that they had available that could be used to beat the big bad dragon (not that any help was really necessary for this one). If you had such perks then these could be unlocked by completing side quests for one faction or another - giving more reason to actually bother completing these.



False Freedoms
Now would someone be so kind as to tell me if I was stupid for expecting these qualities in the first place: 



I thought that in an epic sandbox game where there was an emphasis on FREEDOM and the wonderful STORYTELLING allows you to carve YOUR OWN PATH through the world.


Right


This world is explicitly set out in the first five minutes of play to be dominated by an evil empire in vaguely turn-of-the-BC/AD-era, Mediterranean imperialist empire uniforms. 


As such I decided to be chunky, fiery Boudica-esque character, cunningly named "Boadicea" (Sly, eh?). I kitted her out with all the axes and heavy armour I could find and decided to go on the rampage against my oppressors in my quest for Breton freedom... well... actually just pretty much every NPC (Non-Player Character) I could find in a Viking-style berserker rampage... anyway, the point is that most of the people in the game can't actually be killed. They just take damage and fight back, then crouch for a while before regenerating all of their health back! 


Now unless there is some sinister underplot to Skyrim that I've not quite appreciated yet whereby the majority of its inhabitants are in some kind of undead cult and so I'm pretty much just fucked if I want to go up against them, or otherwise I've missed something here. 


In a free choice game where you are loaded up with axes and an open world and told to go wild - are you actually restricted to not killing the people in it? Or just some people? Yes, the ones that are part of meaningless side-quests and hard-nut guards can be killed off. 


Booooooring


I wanna kill a King. Then take the throne and decree that all God declare unto me that all non-ginger people are genetically-defective night walkers *insert sinister laugh here*.




Talky Talk - Not Happy Talk
There are many glitchy issues present within Skyrim and so I'll spend a little while discussing them. 


The first that kept rearing it's ugly head every hour or so was dialogue overlap. By this, I mean that one NPC was telling me something important about what I was meant to be doing next on my quest and suddendly someone else walks in and starts blabbering on loudly about the town's crops. "Ah wonderful Mr. Bob Everyman, the barley is in season, you say? Right.... and so where exactly is the ring that will help me kill daemons? You didn't hear either? Great....." *stabs* *runs*.


In other cases the characters will just give up altogether and stop talking - though your quest menu will assume you've been given all the relevant details. It can then be difficult to try to work out what's happening in the plot from the very brief summary in the quest menu, e.g. Meet Witch. Do you have a chat with the witch? Free the witch from jail? Stabby stab stab the witch? You can most often find this out when you arrive at your destination but it does leave you feeling disconnected from the adventure when you run halfway across the world and through a labyrinthine dungeon to meet someone for reasons completely unknown to you.


Then there are the guys who will push you around and cut off conversations. Some leave the room as you are trying to start a conversation. Others spend conversations bouncing up and down eerily so that you don't know if they're talking to you or having a fit. All of these really detract from the grand overall immersive experience, hence the points knocked off this game's score.




Giant and Bugs. And Giant Bugs.
O.K. next on the list of issues that brought the fantasy back to reality was the major failings in the physics engine and difficulty balance. 


At one point fairly early on I decided to go monster-hunting big-stylee. I attracted the attention of a dragon and bludgeoned it to death within minutes. Why are they so fucking easy to beat? They look sensational, really. Absolutely gorgeous. But the fact of the matter is they're just not scary when I have killed 3 within the first 5 hours of play (and 20 in as many hours). But that's fine, I'll get the experience and powers anyway. 


Then a giant appeared behind me. "Oh bugger", I thought. "I don't know if I can take on a giant"

Splat.


I was hammered into the floor and then hurled into the air in a crazed ragdoll fashion. Spinning past a dragon around 200m in the air, I thought to myself "Hmm, I wonder if I hit you with my corpse if you'll die with me, you weak pile of crap"


So this is the world I live in, is it? A newb fighter can take dragons down like flies with a fly swatter if the fighter was swatting flies, and my first encounter with a creature I haven't met leads to me being catapulted into the sky. This also lost me the experience earned through the past 2 dragon swattings so I was back to square annoying - left to decide whether to waste 15 minutes killing a couple of dragons or simply go somewhere else to hope that no giants come sneaking my way. 


Anyway, my time as St. George then led to a rocky mountainous section with snow so thick I couldn't see more than ten feet in front of my face and was set upon out of nowhere by a troll. "Aha!", said I. "A troll, the miniature version of a giant - this may be more up my street!"


Splat.


"Riiiiiight", says I with heavy annoyance in my tone, "so this is one of those games where the big bad buggers that have been hyped up to shit are popped off willy nilly but all the little creatures you'd have thought you could take on eat your face in insta-death moves"


This saddened me slightly as I realised that balance was going to be an issue - maybe the developers thought that setting dragons too hard would have meant that no-one could gain the necessary dragon magic that you need to get through the game. However, you could have at least made them a mid-game challenge or, alternatively, bring the smaller baddies' damage down a bit to make the difficulty level smoother. 




Innocent Man
The next major issue I faced was when I killed a "person". That must of been what the reason behind it because the bounty on my head was HUUUUUGE. So, apparently I had murdered someone and also must have evaded capture because the moment I walked into Whiterun territory I was assaulted by every single NPC I faced. 


And I could do nothing about it. 


I put my weapons away, put my hands up and was cut into pieces. "Righty-ho!", I mused, "Looks like I'm going to have to find the right person to hand myself in to. I'll try the guard station, and I must be quick about it as a guy with a sledgehammer is running towards me"


As I entered the door (loading animation begun) I heard a cry of pain. When the guard station  had loaded up, there was I - dead and floating in mid-air - near the door way. Glitched to shit. Not meant to happen. It kept auto-loading on the glitchy death animation until I woke up from the annoyed shock to manually load up an earlier save.


Didn't matter a blind bit because the guard station is just full of guards who are keen to kill you. There was no way I could pay a fee for my crimes, nor go to jail - the only option was to die. 

Great. So that's this save file ruined. 


And which save file shall I go to? Well that's a very good bloody question as I haven't been to Whiterun for ages so I'm not sure what exactly I'm meant to do about it. 


Start my whole game again? Fuck. (Or, more accurately, Fuck That)


This bind meant that I had to replay the past 3 hours worth of main quest missions because I had been speeding through the story as an oblivious criminal. As it turned out, I worked out, it was because much earlier on I had met someone on the road who gave me something to look after (dodgy stuff I guess) and then was going to run and hide when suddenly he fell off the 3 foot ledge he was standing on and landed on me. In the collision he obviously cracked his skull and damaged his brain slightly because he became concussed and therefore slightly confused. While getting up from the floor he pulled a dagger out and went for my throat, to which I replied, "Fire spell! Ha!", and he crumpled to the floor in a heap. I guess there was a guard around 250 meters away who witnessed me "stealing" some dodgy items off someone and then "defencelessly" burning his face off. 


I then walked off on my merry way unaware that I was in any trouble but that guard certainly got the message around - Boudicea had stolen, possessed illegal goods, murdered, poked him a bit once he was dead, and then evaded capture from a long-range guard. 


What a bitch. 


If this was the case then fine, yes, I deserve to be butchered non-stop. Otherwise I demand to be given a fair trial. What? That's not a thing here in Skyrim? Oh. Bugger. Then just above the shoulder please - I want to be left as a commemorative bust to my family.


Conclusions
The main problems in the game are it's glitches and it's limitations. If you were truly free then this game would have been 100 times more enjoyable.

With a few extra months of quality testing and a few tweaks to the story mechanics, this would certainly have lived up to the hype.

As it stands, this is a very good game - fantasy as it should be. The world, creatures and magics all look fantastic - plus the dialogue with characters is much improved since Oblivion.


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